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Harambe May Be Dead, But Our Sense of Entitlement Lives On

02/06/2016 10:09 | Updated 02 June 2016

Much as the trend is to react quickly these days, it's taken a few days to gather my thoughts on the death of Harambe, the gorilla. In that time, many opinions have been voiced, without necessarily examining the wider issues at play. As comedian Romesh Ranganathan remarked, "what this gorilla story shows is that we no longer require information or any level of understanding to arrive at an unshakeable judgement." He does have a point.

The majority of responses seem to fall into one of two categories. On the one hand, outrage and the view Harambe shouldn't have been shot. On the other, disbelief it's even a question; the view being that human life always comes first. Not everyone seems to agree on the latter point, but that's a discussion for another time.

Whilst some see these views as mutually exclusive, one could argue that they don't necessarily conflict. I doubt any of those who believe it was right to shoot Harambe would disagree that prevention would have been better than cure. But as has been pointed out, prevention was of no use once the child was in the enclosure. One criticism that's probably true is that the crowd should have been better managed, to give a greater chance of Harambe being coaxed away. However, let's remember that hindsight affords a sense of clarity often unavailable in moments of danger. None of this is to say that I believe it was necessary to kill Harambe. I don't know enough about gorillas to take a firm view either way, although I think it's important to note Jane Goodall's view that Harambe was probably behaving protectively. However, I think it's fair to say nobody can be completely certain whether the outcome was unavoidable or not.

One striking aspect of the debate is the atmosphere, from some quarters, of disdain at the upset shown over Harambe's death. As though the situation warrants no further reflection. I don't agree with this particular sentiment, although I do share discomfort over the way some have expressed their objections to Harambe's death. For example, there has been a lot of focus on the boy's mother, when apparently both parents were present. It shouldn't need spelling out what's wrong with the focus on his mother if his father was there too. What's more, some of the language used to describe his mother has been undeniably misogynistic. With this in mind, it would be remiss of me not to mention that we should also question, whether there would have been the same degree of scrutiny of the parents had the boy been white.

Without wanting to brush these important issues aside, it's probably beyond the scope of this article to go into more detail than that. So I shall return to the point I've been trying to get to. Which is, that amongst all the outrage, there doesn't seem to be nearly enough reflection on whether Harambe should have been in a zoo in the first place. And let's face it; if we're going to contemplate prevention, we should probably start there.

Take for example some of the gorilla experts who have spoken on the matter. It seems a lot of them are linked with the zoo business in one way or other. Some have included, in their messages of support, a reminder that zoos exist in the interests of conservation, and for the benefit of educating children. Yet we should wonder, if this really is to be taken for granted, why they would even mention it. As Blackfish highlighted, the concept of conservation is too often used as a means to justify keeping animals captive for profit. So it didn't come as a huge surprise when one ex zookeeper lamented on the loss of revenue for the zoo. Whilst zookeepers probably do care deeply for the animals they work with, ultimately they're employed to manage animals who are regarded, above all else, as property. It is here we start to get a glimpse of the real problem: our overarching belief that we are entitled to control and utilise other animals as we see fit.

The reasons we control the lives of other animals are many, and include, among other things, food - be it through direct consumption, or indirectly through habitat destruction - entertainment, clothing, keeping pets, medical and scientific research. There are those who will argue that we should differentiate between uses that are trivial and non-trivial. However, there's no single objective measure of which forms can be deemed as trivial, and which practices are acceptable, or not. That's because the answers to these questions are generally informed by culturally ingrained preferences more than anything else. It is for this reason that we should be asking a much bigger question of ourselves. Not about where to draw lines between species and purpose, but whether we should be dominating animals at all.

It may seem absurd to question our enduring belief in dominion over other animals. It's so embedded in our psyche that on first thought it may seem like questioning whether we ought to breathe. However, it is, like it or not, one of the most profound and pressing questions of our time. You only need to look at history to see that, time and again, the greatest injustices happened as a result of the belief of one group that they had a right to exert power over another. We should bear that in mind and then consider if animals ought to exist for their own purposes, and not as we have grown to believe, purely as subjects we should control.

Whilst I will always argue that the motivation for asking such questions should be in the interests of the animals who we exploit, I don't think it hurts for me to make my next point. Which is, unless we can put aside our arrogance and realise we must exist alongside, rather than in control of, other species, chances are we'll be joining the endangered list soon enough ourselves.

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